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Form and Function

[adapted from “Form and Function” in Hop-Lite, No. 8, Fall 1999]

“Form follows function” is a principle that pertains to all combative training whether pop sports “martial arts,” such as MMA, karate-do, wrestling, and fencing to the use of sword or firearm on the battlefield. Using the form-function rule as part of our perspective, it should be pretty obvious when looking at the form of a “fighting” system what its true function is.

Most of what we now call “martial arts” are pop sport or recreational systems. In most cases they are derived from systems that originally were functionally aimed at real combat. However, over the last fifty years in particular the greatest interest in “martial arts” has been for sport/recreational use or entertainment. Their popularity and spread has been based almost entirely on their use to those non-combat ends.

Modern karate provides a good example of the changes that typically occur. Modern karate has evolved over the past hundred years from a complex of Okinawan village and town self-defense systems that originally were used for actual fighting, though primarily by civilians. In karate’s evolution, it was adopted from its primary use as village/town civilian self defense system to inclusion in Japan’s educational system in the 1920’s. There it was melded into a program of physical education. After World War II, what remained of karate (now, with a distinct Japanese flavor) was heavily influenced by its physical education context: competition in kata and sparring. American military personnel in post-war Japan were exposed to the system, and introduced it to the U.S. market. With its expansion abroad, it was primarily the overt competition elements that were popularized.

In its relatively new guise as a competitive sport, karate’s form altered to meet the demands of the new function. Consider the change in characteristics in form and function from the a village/town fighting art to a modern combat sport:
training outdoors on natural ground
preparation for environment of real fighting
training primarily on artificial floor of dojo
competition on same type of surface
variety of training methods: applications, strength conditioning, body hardening, makiwara, etc.
preparation for demands of real fighting
relatively limited training methods: form and sparring techniques
preparation for competition
stance/posture – relatively high
balance and mobility on rough ground against multiple opponents
stances/postures – lower more Adynamic@looking
aesthetic value for competition
“one-step” restricted sparring only, but with no limitations in types of techniques (e.g., eye jabs, joint kicks, etc.)
real fighting demands destructive techniques
free sparring – limited techniques and targets
safety in competition
techniques aimed at structural damage
defeating adversary in real fighting
techniques aimed at general target areas
competition victory – points
no difference in techniques between kata and kumite
combative outcome demands that only applicable techniques are practiced
kumite and kata techniques are different
kata competition – demands techniques that “look good;” kumite demands techniques that earn sparring points
Again, the function for which a system evolves will alter the form of the system to suit that function. For example, on the sport side, if judges start giving more points for flashy kicking techniques, the system will alter to include such kicks. This is not a matter of good or bad fighting arts, it is simply a matter of changing functions forcing changes in the form.

The form of a system reveals the true function of the system. Unfortunately, people often believe that the system they’re practicing is for one thing-typically combat-when the form of the system shows that it is primarily for sport. Variations of this theme can be seen in all of the popular “fighting” systems, whether they are Asian based systems or Western combat sports such as boxing, fencing, or “combat” handgun competitions.

The confusion and real problems occur when the two ends are confused – when people assume that a system that has evolved for one function will be equally suitable for another. Typical is the belief that a system that has evolved for sport or recreational purposes can function equally well in real combat. This occurs even though there are great and readily apparent differences in the techniques used for sport and combat.

Combat has intense and demanding characteristics that the form of any combat system must comply with if its function is to truly prepare for combat. That form is not going to be as aesthetically pleasing nor as sportingly functional as the forms of systems that have sport ends. If sport techniques are used in combat or combat techniques used in sport the consequences can easily lead to injury in the latter or death in the former.

Therefore, our aim at Exemplar is to design a systematic approach toward understanding as effectively as possible training the mindset for lethal combat. To that end, it is imperative that we recognize and clearly delineate the differences in combative behavior-and-performance between lethal combat systems and those whose functions are aimed at other ends.
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About Hunter B. Armstrong

As Director of the International Hoplology Society (established in 1976 by Donn Draeger), Hunter Armstrong is professionally engaged in the research and development of hoplology - the study of human combative behavior and performance. In his efforts to gain a broader perspective on hoplology, he has spent considerable time on field research in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India, researching the training and fighting arts of those areas. Starting in karate in the early 1960's, he has been training consistently for the past fifty plus years. Now, primarily concentrating on classical Japanese battlefield martial arts, he has also trained in a number of Chinese combative arts. In addition to Asian weapons and fighting systems, Armstrong has researched and studied classical European weapons and fighting systems and the relationship of biomechanics to the development of weapons use. In particular, he has concentrated on the principles of efficient behavior in combat, especially as expressed in traditional martial cultures.

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